Free State coronavirus

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Nearly 500 bodies left unidentified at Cape Town mortuaries

An influx of violent crimes leave police officers struggling to identify bodies and track down family members of the deceased

Free State coronavirus

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In December 2018, it was reported that approximately 2 400 bodies were lying unidentified in Gauteng mortuaries.

Fast forward to 2019 and there is still a staggering 495 bodies lying unidentified at mortuaries, only this time, in and around the Western Cape.

According to reports from the Weekend Argus on 2 November 2019, the oldest body is 13 years old and has been frozen at the Salt River Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) since its arrival in 2006. The body is now made up of only skin and bone.

The body had to be moved to a temperature-controlled shipping container located outside the building, where there are another 229 unidentified bodies are being kept.

Salt River mortuary swamped

Forensic officer Calvin Mesane said regulations state that 30 days is the longest bodies can be kept. However, it often takes swamped investigating officers a longer time to track down the identity and family of the deceased.

A police officer can request an extension in writing, allowing for a further 30 days but, if after the extension, no family is found for the body, it will be processed as a pauper. Once processed as such, the municipality would have to bear the funeral costs.

Cremation: Over 600 boxes lay unclaimed

Cremated remains are kept in ash boxes with a death certificate, but this too is piling up with 602 unclaimed boxes presently being stored.

“For cultural reasons we hang on to it for as long as we can,” said Mesane. “People might come back and want the remains, because they don’t believe in cremation. Africans would like a body to bury, even if it’s bones. They don’t want the ashes, really.”

Future plans to prevent backlogs

Next year the Salt River FPS will be moving to a new facility currently under construction next to Groote Schuur Hospital. The new facility is expected to house obese bodies, however, there are already concerns that it might be too small.

In July 2019, Groote Schuur Hospital said it was treating up to 90 gunshot victims a month, at an average of about three a day due to gang violence.

Some bodies were being stored in refrigerator shipping containers due to overcrowding from an increase in violent crime and population growth. GroundUp reported that the mortuary can handle a maximum of 18 cases a day.

“In the new facility, they’ve made space for 360 incoming, 360 outgoing, and there’s space provided for obese bodies,” Mesane said.

The Salt River FPS’s new facility in Observatory is expected to cost R281m and is scheduled to open in May 2020.